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Russia escalates its air war

Six days of attacks have Chechen targets in ruins. A ground assault may

Moscow is marching into a new war with the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and seems confident Russian forces can win this time using tactics honed by NATO in its air offensive against Yugoslavia.

Russia opposed NATO's Balkan intervention, but its generals appear to have visions of an easy victory without the high political risks and heavy casualties of a land war.

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For the past six days Russian warplanes have hammered strategic targets around the Chechen capital, Grozny, including oil refineries, a TV tower, a telephone exchange, and the residential neighborhood where Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov lives. Russian troops are massing on the rebel republic's frontier.

The independent Interfax news agency quoted Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev yesterday as saying the bombing would continue, "until the last bandit is destroyed." He also hinted at the possibility of a ground offensive, saying, "We are examining several variants which will be implemented depending on the situation that develops."

If the mode of attack sounds familiar, so does the rhetoric of pro-government analysts. "Russia is using force to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe," says Alexander Ignatev, with the Center for Ethno-Political and Regional Studies in Moscow, a think tank with strong Kremlin ties. "The lives of thousands in the North Caucasus and Russia are at risk, and this compels action."

Russian officials claim that Chechnya, which won de facto independence after a bitter 1994-96 civil war, has been turned into a base for Islamic militants who threaten the surrounding region. Chechen-backed rebels have staged recent incursions into neighboring Dagestan and are blamed by Russian leaders for bombings that killed nearly 300 people in Russia in the past month.

For the long-suffering Russian military, there has been a sharp revival of public favor. "The mood in Russia has changed cardinally due to fear of terrorism," says Sergei Kazyennov, an analyst with the independent Institute for National Security Problems in Moscow. "Politicians are suddenly all for the harshest measures against Chechnya. Unfortunately, they are being led by the generals, instead of the other way around.

"As a result there is too much stress on military actions, and no political exit strategy has been prepared."

Over the past several days top generals have appeared on TV news programs to explain the new strategy of "pinpoint" strikes, which purportedly spare the civilian population. A recent press briefing featured cockpit video - la NATO - shot by an attacking Russian Su-25 bomber as it made an apparently clean hit on Grozny's TV tower.

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"We are not putting the peaceful population in any danger," Gen. Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the Russian army's general staff, told Russian television Sunday. But Chechen President Maskhadov claims the attacks have killed as many as 300 civilians, a number that could not be independently verified, and forced tens of thousands more to flee their homes. The government of the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia closed its border with Chechnya Sunday, leaving large numbers of refugees stranded in open fields.

Analysts warn that Russia's war with Chechnya bears little resemblance to NATO's conflict with Yugoslavia, and the similarities that exist do not work in Russia's favor. "NATO scored a political victory over Yugoslavia. The military effects of its bombing campaign were very slight," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert with the Segodnya newspaper. "Russia has already been to war with Chechnya, and lost. A little more bombing is not going to bring a political solution."

According to the weekly Profil magazine, Russia has concentrated 30 percent of its total European military forces in the North Caucasus, but still lacks the manpower and technical capability to even seal the border with Chechnya, much less defeat it in a new war. Ironically, the majority of Russia's best-trained soldiers are serving as peacekeepers with the NATO-led forces in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"Russia is absolutely not ready for any big military actions in Chechnya," says Felgenhauer. "The present campaign is all bluff."

Some analysts suggest Moscow's warmongering is all for domestic political effect, to boost the chances of the Kremlin's presidential favorite, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in upcoming elections. In fact, Mr. Putin's popularity has jumped from 2 to 7 percent in the past week, according to a new poll.

"Russia lost the previous war to contain Chechnya due to the inconsistency of politicians," says Mr. Ignatev. "Now we have a prime minister who is prepared to act decisively, and follow through on his decisions. That's the difference."

But far from leading to a political settlement, as NATO's 11-week bombardment of Yugoslavia ultimately did, Russia's air war against Chechnya may be making one much more difficult to reach.

"Putin is deliberately bombing Grozny in order to make negotiations between [Chechen president] Maskhadov and the Russian leadership impossible," writes Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.

"For short-term political gains, he is making all Chechens the enemies of Russia forever. This is not a limited war, this is the route to a bloodbath."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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